Aya Saed | Making a house a home

Seeds of Reason | Du Bois must redefine itself as a space for black students

· October 5, 2012, 1:29 am

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Aya Saed
Seeds of Reason

Reflect, for a second, on the spaces on campus that have earned their way into your heart. Maybe it’s a fraternity, a religious center, a cultural center or even a college house.

Penn has invested heavily to ensure that students of all walks of life have a place to call home.

Du Bois College House used to be one of these places. It was created in 1972 through the Afro-American Studies program and the Du Bois residential program, which occupied two floors.

The idea was spearheaded by then-sophomore Cathy Barlow. Barlow and three white male students planned a major sit-in at College Hall to protest the rising attrition rates amongst black students and the University’s encroachment into the West Philadelphia community, which was jeopardizing its black residents.

Penn has come leaps and bounds in recognizing the need to support students of color. In addition to creating Du Bois, it departmentalized the Africana Center as well as establishing the African-American Resource Center and Makuu — the black cultural center.

Since its inception, Du Bois has been a welcoming place for students interested in learning more about the black community. But the house also used to be an incubator for progressive leaders and social innovators, giving rise to projects like the Ase Academy, an academic and cultural enrichment program for secondary students in Philadelphia.

2002 College graduate and Africana studies professor Tanji Gilliam, who lived in Du Bois during its heyday, made it the center of her academic and social life on campus.

“Whether it was having [New Spirit at Penn gospel choir] practice, seeing groups such as the Onyx Senior Honor Society holding meetings, Greek organizations such as Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. having annual events in the multi-purpose room, to having classes run by faculty masters in the seminar rooms — Du Bois truly was a home,” she said.

In recent years, however, Du Bois has lost its spark.

When it was time for me to apply for housing as a freshman, I got in touch with a few residents of Du Bois to learn more about living there. To my surprise, they urged me to live elsewhere.

With such a deep history and continued commitment to Afro-American history, what could stop me from living in the house?

The upperclassmen explained how, over the years, Du Bois had become a restrictive place to live. Residents felt the need to constantly mind their behavior, which created a subdued atmosphere.

It seems like not much has changed, according to College senior Adrienne Edwards, who lived in the house during her first three years.

“I find the policies of Du Bois to be exponentially oppressive because they are rooted in creating the best external appearance of the College House,” she said.

Edwards added, “there is nothing more strangling, as a black student at Penn, than being constantly reminded of and having to adjust your behavior for an external eye that you can seemingly never please.”

Du Bois House Dean Trish Williams, who has overseen the house since 2001, explained that she strives to “create a comfortable space, one that is not rowdy and disrespectful.”

“My job is to make this an environment of learners, of scholars,” she added.

But scholastic excellence and a communal atmosphere should not be mutually exclusive. Perhaps Du Bois need not function solely as an extension to the classroom. Its residents, like all other residents of college houses, are multifaceted individuals with interests and passions that extend beyond their textbooks.

That’s not to say that residents are unhappy. According to Faculty Master Rev. William Gipson, “a quick glance at the College House Survey reveals that this is in fact a welcoming space.”

But this assertion stands in contrast to the findings by the Perception of Undergraduate Life and Student Engagement survey in 2009 which reveal that 36 percent of black students were not comfortable on this campus.

Given Du Bois’ historical significance, it seems like a natural place to begin understanding the root of this problem. Alternative spaces, such as Makuu, have become less viable this year, as the center has been temporarily relocated to a cramped space with limited hours of operation to accommodate renovations of the ARCH building.

The house can rise to the occasion and reinvent itself as a nurturing space for the black community: one that welcomes distinguished alumni, faculty from the Africana Studies Department and major speakers on black thought. It can bridge Makuu, the West Philadelphia community and a multiplicity of cultures and communities.

As Du Bois celebrates its 40th anniversary, we should strive to spark a renaissance. We owe it to the likes of Cathy Barlow.

Aya Saed is a College senior from Washington, D.C. Her email address is saed.aya@gmail.com. “Seeds of Reason” appears every other Friday. Follow her on Twitter @_AyaS

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